'Grand Army': TV Review

Messy but moving.

Odessa A'zion, Maliq Johnson and other relative newcomers star in Netflix's teen drama about struggling students at a prestigious high school.

The fictional Brooklyn high school in the new Netflix teen drama Grand Army is supposed to be the kind of prestigious public institution that doesn’t just launch students into elite colleges, but a grander set of possibilities. Take Dominique (played by luminous newcomer Odley Jean), the daughter of a Haitian-immigrant single mother who decides to braid hair during the scant free time she has to help her family make rent, and who dreams of becoming a therapist some day, even though neither she nor anyone she knows has ever been to one. At Grand Army — a school even Dom’s private-school clients are in awe of — her dreams can be both extravagant and accessible.

At least that’s how things should work. Created by Katie Cappiello and based partially on her 2013 work Slut: The Play, the series is a group portrait of how precarious the educational privileges that Grand Army affords its students can be, especially for those of color. Dom’s friends tease her for being a “genius,” and she herself dings her longtime crush, John (Alphonso Romero Jones II), by noting, “He’s pretty but he can’t do calc.”

But between school, her braiding gig, her responsibility towards her younger siblings, her basketball commitments, a new romance and an internship opportunity to get a head start on her career goals (whew), it’s not long before the junior finds herself so underwater she unwittingly endangers her place at Grand Army.

And that’s with the teachers on Dom’s side. A mild prank that best friends and rival jazz saxophonists Jayson (a beautifully subtle Maliq Johnson) and Owen (Jaden Jordan) play on Dominique gets them in serious-enough trouble that some of the (rather numerous) socially conscious students start discussing the school-to-prison pipeline. Unruly girls like Joey (Odessa A'zion, who's inherited her mother Pamela Adlon’s talent and a few of her mannerisms) get penalized, too, especially when they blur the line between feminist protest and adolescent provocation.

The enforcers of gender norms aren’t just educators and administrators, but other students. No one knows that better than Sid (Amir Bageria), a senior who only lets his mom call him by his full name, Siddhartha. The only brown boy on the swim team, the Harvard hopeful knows he doesn’t need to give his casually racist and sexist clique of bullying jocks any more reason to think he’s not one of them.

If all this isn’t enough fodder for teen angst, Grand Army begins with a terrorist attack near the school, the traumatic aftermath of which isn’t processed enough in the show. But the series’ biggest letdown is its sludgy, soporific pacing, which robs many of the storylines of their urgency. It doesn’t help that the late-fall look that pilot director So Yong Kim (Lovesong) establishes is one of gray-and-blue-heavy, no-budget-indie naturalism. The hair strands of dozens of students lie tangled with lint and dust and who knows what else in bathroom corners, and the trash cans are actually dirty from seemingly years of abuse.

Presumably named after the plaza that abuts Prospect Park (with Toronto standing in convincingly for Brooklyn), Grand Army shares with HBO’s Euphoria a keen interest in exploring the collisions between teenage girls who’ve armed themselves with the reigning ideals of female sexual empowerment and the wall of culturally pervasive misogyny that they inevitably run into. But Euphoria also boasts an exuberance in its artsy, editorial-leaning fashion and makeup choices that keeps the series from wallowing in misery.

Grand Army is a more somber show, as well as a more serious-minded one. That’s not necessarily a knock against it, especially when it gets at a truth about teenagers: High-schoolers, especially, are often deeply sympathetic and viscerally unlikable at the same time. That’s certainly the case with Leila (Amalia Yoo), a Chinese adoptee raised by Jewish parents whose pre-existing identity crisis is exacerbated by teasing from the other Chinese-American girls who question her “Asianness.”

The freshman’s social standing at Grand Army is the stuff of whiplash, with her surprise placement on a list of the hottest girls in school stirring a backlash among, and some predation by, the meaner upperclassmen. But as the gory, post-apocalyptic animated sequences that make up Leila’s fantasies suggest, there’s a lot more darkness under her earnest exterior. (The same might be said about the show, the management of which was allegedly characterized by “racist exploitation and abuse” against the show’s three writers of color, according to former series writer Ming Peiffer.)

Whatever the behind-the-scenes conditions, there’s no denying two realities: that Grand Army lets several of its cast members shine through complex characters and culturally specific plotlines and that the show’s ambitions underscore its messy, sluggish, all-too-frequently frustrating storytelling. And yet whenever Dominique appeared on screen, listening to an aspirational podcast or audiobook that clashes against the tedious yet overwhelming needs of the day, I couldn’t help thinking of all the other millions of girls who are determined to presume that the world will be theirs one day, too, even if they can only believe it for a moment.

Cast: Odessa A'zion, Odley Jean, Amir Bageria, Maliq Johnson, Amalia Yoo

Creator: Katie Cappiello

Premieres Friday, Oct. 16, on Netflix